(Prof. Philippe Sands QC: brilliant, but in this case, I respectfully (and uncomfortably) disagree. A bit.)
Legality of pre-emption is back - and as usual, no-one can agree. The Guardian's coverage is pretty sensible, and I'll come to the substance of the argument over whether allied air forces in Libya can continue to attack Gadaffi's ground forces within the terms of UNSCR 1973 in a minute.
But first can we just cherish the fact that we're having this debate at all? The notion that abstruse debates about the legality of the use of force are now taking place in the press at all is wonderful, and a testament to the work of people like Professor Sands, Professor Francoise Hampson, Professor Elizabeth Wilmshurst CMG, and Professor Charles Garraway in making the role of the law in the use of force so politically important. Thank-you all - it is a wonderful step forward.
There is a long-running argument amongst international lawyers over whether or not you can act pre-emptively in self-defence. In practice, most of the argument over pre-emptive action (more properly, "anticipatory self-defence") comes down to a ferocious debate over which side of a fence are you on: does a State have to absorb the enemy's first strike, or can it blunt it by attacking a State that is in the final stages of launching an attack?
(1967 Pre-emption, Israeli style: Egyptian AF transports destroyed.)
The classic case is the 1967 Six Day War, in which the Israeli Defence Force mounted a pre-emptive attack on Egypt, believing that Egyptian President Nasser having evicted the UN Emergency Force from Sinai and having closed the Straits of Tiran was about to invade Israel. This led to decisive Israeli victories against Egypt, Syria and Jordan, with Israel occupying the Sinai Peninsula, East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and the Golan Heights. Militarily, it was magnificent performance, but legally it was a shambles: the evidence today is that Nasser didn't intend to attack at all, but was posturing for domestic support.
Which is why I put myself in the camp that says you have to in effect ride the first punch before counter-attacking (and this could just be the first artillery rounds crossing the border). And those lawyers who favour the right to pre-empt are almost exclusively in the camp that recognises the danger that a broad power of pre-emption would grant - namely, that the greater the margin of appreciation given to those using their right to "anticipatory self defence", the more likely you are to provide a charter for the unbridled use of force.
This is where the Bush Administration's US National Security Strategy of 2002 and 2006 went so far off the rails: it articulated a doctrine of "pre-emptive warfare". At one level, this takes anticipatory self-defence to the logical conclusion: if something could become a threat, it'll be quicker and easier to deal with it now, rather than later.
This is probably true, but it somewhat misses the point that the use of force in such a situation was rendered completely illegal by the passage of Art 2(4) of the UN Charter. In other words, the US National Security Strategies of 2002 and 2006 were in fact premised on the Bush Administration's willingness to explicitly break international law.
(One opposed to more billboards.)
Libyan So What?
Prof. Sands' point that pre-emption is a slippery slope is absolutely correct. But I take issue with this quote in the Guardian:
"It is difficult in international law to argue for a pre-emptive use of force to protect civilians from a possible threat that might arise in the future. We don't know if there is evidence to show that a failure to attack Ghadaffi's forces would lead to a regrouping that would lead in turn to attacks on civilians."
I would suggest that to the contrary there is 42 years' worth of evidence that Gaddafi's forces have led a more (and generally rather less than) benign reign of terror over his country. This to me leads me to an expansive understanding of the powers conferred to the coalition of the willing by the UN, and with it, the conclusion that Gaddafi forces are being used to oppress civilians, and therefore that attacking them at a time and place of the allied air forces' choosing probably meets the requirements of UNSCR 1973 OP4. As such, my disagreement with Prof. Sands is about nuance, not the law specifically.
But Prof. Sands broader point must be right: if not yet, then pretty soon the western air forces are going to be testing the outer boundaries of UNSCR 1973. Accepting as I do, Malcolm Shaw QC's point that these boundaries are elastic, they are not infinitely so. So whilst hoping that the Gaddafi regime collapses before we're faced with the problem of exceeding the powers granted, the correct thing if rebel ground forces cannot overthrow the Gaddafi regime alone, is to return to the UN Security Council for increased powers if that is required. I'll look at how and what these powers would look like in a future post.